Romney (sheep)

Romney (sheep)

The Romney, formerly called the Romney Marsh or the Kent sheep is a "long-wool" sheep recognized as a breed in England by 1800. Exported to other continents, the Romney is the world’s second (to the Merino) most economically important sheep breed. This position comes from the breed’s past and continuing majority share in the sheep-meat and wool export trades of New Zealand.

History of the Breed


The breed developed in Kent and East Sussex in and around the area of low-lying grassland collectively known since the Middle Ages as Romney Marsh. For many centuries sheep were brought to the rich grazing of this district from other parts of England to be fattened for market. Although windy in winter and fever-ridden (see Malaria in Wiki Romney Marsh article linked above), "The Marsh" consists of rich pastures on estuarine sediments. These were originally tidal saltmarsh, but between 1150 and 1400 they were "inned" (protected from the sea by dikes) to form non-tidal land.

The breed evolved from medieval longwool types of which the Romney and Leicester breeds are early examples [ML Ryder, The history of Sheep Breeds in Britain, "Ag. Hist Rev", 12,1 1964 pp 65-82] . The sheep recognized by 1800 as "Romney Marsh" or "Kent" were improved in body type and fleece quality through crossings with Bakewell’s English Leicester [ Price, Daniel A System of Sheep-Grazing and Management as Practised in Romney Marsh London, Richard Phillips, 1809 ] [ Stewart, Henry. The Domestic Sheep Its Culture and General Management. Chicago, American Sheep Breeder Press 1900 p.76 ]

International spread

The first confirmed export of Romneys from England was a shipment of twenty from Stone, Kent that went on the "Cornwall" to NZ in 1853. With these and a further thirty ewes sent in 1856, Alfred Ludlum established New Zealand’s first Romney Marsh stud in 1860 in the Hutt Valley. In 1855 there had been 60,000 Merinos in NZ, but the Romney Marsh sheep thrived more, supplanting the Merino over most of the country. The New Zealand Romney Marsh Association was formed in 1904. Alfred Matthews was the first president; the stud he founded, Waiorongamai, is still going. In 1965 three-quarters of the national flock was Romney [ McKenzie Anna. A Century of the NZ Romney, New Zealand Sheep Farmer 2000: 7: 14-19]

In the mid-1990s [ [ Meat and Wool NZ] ] Romneys comprised 58% of the New Zealand sheep flock (estimated in 2000 at 45 million), with Coopworths (originally Border Leicester on Romney crosses) ) and Perendales (originally Cheviot on Romney crosses) making up another 16.6% of the national flock, in which Merinos stood at 7% and Corriedales at 5.5%.

The New Zealand export lamb trade started in 1882 with a shipment aboard the "Dunedin" of 4900 frozen carcasses to London’s Smithfield Market. This was much the biggest meat cargo ever carried so far to that time. Feb 15, departure date, is still celebrated as New Zealand Lamb Day. After 1932 the technology for shipping chilled fresh meat by sea (and later by air) further enhanced the export trade.

The story of Romneys is hardly limited to England and New Zealand. The breed has been established in settings as different as Patagonia, Australia, Portugal, Brazil, Canada, and Southern California.

For many years England was the primary source of export Romneys. Between 1900 and 1955 eighteen thousand rams and 9000 ewes went from England to 43 countries. (ref 7 p. 20) New Zealand itself began exporting after the sensational win of Ernest Short’s Parorangi ram at the Argentine International Exhibition in 1906. Health requirements in recent decades have made New Zealand and Australia almost the only breeding ground for exported Romney seed stock, with Brazil, Uruguay, the Falklands, the U.S. and England itself some of the recipient countries.



The economic success of the Romney in New Zealand over a century and a half says volumes, but does not make the breed ideal for every situation. Henry Fell in "Intensive Sheep Management" posits that the Romney is, “A breed which ha [s] all the virtues save one, that of prolificacy… will thrive happily at extraordinary densities and seems to enjoy it.” [ Fell, Henry. Intensive Sheep Management. (Farming Press Limited, Ipswich 1979 p 77)] A number of large Romney flocks in New Zealand have in the last several decades achieved better than 1.7 lambs for every ewe exposed to the ram, showing much better prolificacy than Fell had observed in England. [ [ Romneys prove to be robust - 26sep07 - Farmnews, New Zealand ] ] Some leaders are going yet higher, still with good survivability. [ Davis GH et al A putative autosomal gene increasing ovulation rate in Romney sheep Animal Reprod Sci 2006; 92:65-73 ]

Almost every detailed description of the Romney cites relative resistance to foot rot, an attribute rarely mentioned in descriptions of other breeds. “It is said that foot rot and liver fluke seldom affect Romney Marsh sheep.” reads a 1918 American text. [ Coffey, Walter C. Productive Sheep Husbandry Philadelphia, J.B. Lippincott Co 1918 p.165 ] A later book is more circumspect: “Romneys are said to be somewhat resistant to foot rot, liver flukes and other problems that often plague sheep in damp pastures.” [ Simmons P, Ekarius C Storey’s Guide to Raising Sheep. North Adams MA, Storey Books, 2001 p. 68 ]


The Romney is in general an open-faced breed with long wool that grows over the legs in full. Romney breed standards are not identical across all countries, but have much in common. The oldest Romney breed society, that of England (founded 1895), adopted the following standard in 1991,

The Official Description of the typical Romney sheep is as follows: Head wide, level between ears, with no horns nor dark hair on the poll. Eyes should be large, bright and prominent and the mouth sound. Face in ewes full, and in rams broad and masculine in appearance. Nose and hooves should be black. Neck well set in at the shoulders, strong and not too long. Shoulders well put in and level with the back. Chest wide and deep. Back straight and long, with a wide and deep loin. Rump wide, long and well-turned. Tail set almost even with the chine . Thighs well let down and developed. The face should be white, and the skin of a clean pink colour. Ribs should be well sprung. Legs well set, with good bone and sound feet. Sheep should stand well on their pasterns. The fleece should be of white colour, even texture and a good decided staple from top of head to end of tail and free from kemp. [Centenary Handbook of the Romney Sheep Breeders’ Society (1995). Approved at the Annual General Meeting of Members of the Romney Sheep Breeders’ Society, Great Britain 1991 ]

Today’s Romney sheep varies among and also within continents, especially as to body size. The breed can still be characterized in that respect as being in the larger half of the spectrum represented say by Cheviot (smaller end) to Lincoln (larger end). An English description of size speaks of “big sheep” -- ewes, to 85 kg, rams to 110 kg, while the American breed standard calls for ewes at breeding age to be “140 lbs or more” and rams “200 lbs or more.” [Centenary Handbook of the Romney Sheep Breeders’ Society (1995). Approved at the Annual General Meeting of Members of the Romney Sheep Breeders’ Society, Great Britain 1991 ] [ [ American Romney] ]

The registering bodies for most sheep breeds continue to struggle with the question of what size is just right and with other finer details. These questions have no transnational or even national answers. Relevant issues include economics, ecology, and the exigencies (in some countries) of the show ring.

Fleece characteristics

Romneys produce a heavy fleece. A healthy mature ram can yield at shearing upwards of 10 kg per year, while flock averages in NZ for breeding ewes are typically above 5 kg. The increased fleece weight of a long-wooled sheep comes from the longer fiber length produced. A finer-wooled sheep (e.g. Merino, Rambouillet) actually has far more wool follicles than the long-wooled sheep, but each supports a slower-growing fiber that is therefore shorter at periodic shearing. The “clean yield” (net weight after thorough washing) is typically high for Romneys, 75-80%; this is a higher yield than is got for most fine-wooled sheep.

Perhaps the most important dimension of wool, which above all else determines its best use, is average fiber diameter (AFD). Romneys are strong-wooled sheep, with an AFD higher than many sheep breeds. High AFD indicates best use in carpeting and other rugged uses; lowest AFD wools (from Merinos, for example) are ideal for fine suit fabrics and luxury wear. AFD must be measured with instruments. The time-honored “Bradford system”, which uses the eyes and hands of experienced humans, has some correlation to measured AFD but can be biased. The American Romney Breeders Association declares the Romney fleece should be [Bradford system] “44s to 50s.” Transformed arbitrarily into micrometers, or microns, by the United States Department of Agriculture this range would correspond to 29.30 to 36.19 microns. In New Zealand the standard says “44s to 52s” but gives a different AFD range: 33 to 37 microns. There is no international agreement on converting Bradford counts into AFD in microns.

The Romney’s fleece is ideal for hand-spinning, and is often recommended to beginners. In the United States, where there is no commercial end-use for domestic strong wools, the most desired outlet for Romney wool is to hand-spinners. Only a small fraction of the thousands of Romney fleeces shorn in the US each year, however, go to this “niche-market” use.

Romney wool in NZ goes mostly into that country’s vast shipments of wool for the rug and carpet factories of the European Union, Asia, the USA, Australia and NZ itself. An increasing amount recently has been going to China. New Zealand is the world’s largest producer and exporter of “strong crossbred” wool (a term for wool with average fiber diameter >35.4 microns). In 2002-2003 the country exported approximately 138,000 tonnes of wool "clean basis," about half of which was of AFD >35.4 microns, the Romney domain. [ [ New Zealand Romney wool] ] "Clean basis" refers to the net weight anticipated after thorough washing (see "clean yield" above); much wool moved internationally is shipped before washing as the natural oils in the fleece make it travel better. In the same year, total wool exports returned nearly one billion $NZ, about 3% of total merchandise exports revenues for the country. [ [ Romney trade statistics] ]

In North America and England, natural-colored Romneys (whose fleeces are not white, but black, gray, silver, brown, variegated) have come to be valued for what they bring to hand-spinners and weavers who like the palette of natural colors. Traditionally, as everyone remembers, natural-colored (formerly known as “black”) sheep were detested, as even a small amount of black fiber such as comes off a coin-sized spot overlooked on an otherwise white sheep can ruin hundreds of pounds of textile.

Since 1973 natural-colored Romneys have been registered with the American Romney Breeders’ Association (founded 1911), which has developed a special breed standard for them [ [ American Romney] ] . In New Zealand natural colored Romneys can be registered in the Romney section of the Black and Natural-colored Sheep Breeders Association, but are still eyed with suspicion by many breeders of white Romneys.

Economic Importance of Romneys

The sheer number of Romney ewes and lambs in New Zealand make the breed not only the biggest input by tonnage to overseas and domestic wool trade, but also the major part of the country’s export frozen lamb trade, as purebreds and first-generation crosses. New Zealand is the world’s largest exporter of frozen and chilled lamb. In 2004 NZ sheep-meat exports (mostly of lamb) brought in more than half of the country’s 4.5 billion $NZ meat export revenues. [ [ Statistics] ]

ee also

*Bradford system
*Domestic sheep
*List of sheep breeds
*Sheep shearing
*Wool Classing


External links

* [] Romney proves to be robust - Farmnews, NZ
* [ The Romney Sheep Breeders Society]

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